Demonstrators stage a beach party outside the French Embassy, in Knightsbridge, London, in protest at the French government's decision to ban women from wearing burkinis. PAimages/Dominic Lipinski. All rights reserved.Last week, the mayor of Oye-Plage in France was so disturbed by seeing a woman in a burkini on the beach that he is planning to ban such a garb from the beaches of his own town. This reminded me of some of my own experiences in the past that may just be relevant to the current debates over the burkini in Cannes, Marseille and other beaches in France.
About fourteen years ago I was in Jordan with my not-yet-adolescent daughter. We were in a goldsmith’s shop in Amman looking at jewelry. The shop was very small, almost a cubicle. At one point six to eight women entered. They were totally covered by burkas; only their eyes were partially visible through a bit of lacework. This was the first time I had found myself in such a situation, in a very small space, surrounded by a group of women of whom I could see nothing. I was more than a bit uncomfortable. We bought a pair of earrings and left the shop.
Some two years later I was in Esalen, California for a conference. Among those attending was an old friend of mine, a very observant Jewish man who lives in an ultra-orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. We were both quite taken with the open-air hot tubs, which famously look out over the Pacific Ocean.
We quickly learned, however, that the etiquette of Esalen demanded that one enter the hot tubs naked, men and women together. We felt rather uncomfortable with this arrangement and contrived to go one morning at about 3:00 am, certain that nobody would be there. We took off our clothes, ran the water in the tubs, and were enjoying ourselves immensely when we were suddenly joined by—a naked woman.
Again, I was more than slightly uncomfortable. But I was also forced to admit the irony of the situation. After all, I had been made uncomfortable by the presence of women completely covered by clothing, and now I was being made similarly uncomfortable when faced with a woman who was completely naked.
Then it struck me that the problem just might be my own, not the external circumstances. That is to say, there was a certain, rather narrow range of exposed female flesh with which I was comfortable, and anything outside this range caused me anxiety and discomfort. My own comfort zone told me nothing about the world beyond me; it was a benchmark for nothing except what left me feeling comfortable or uncomfortable.
Critically, I was forced to admit that my own perspective also told me nothing about what was right or wrong, moral or immoral, acceptable or not—beyond the narrow world of my own experiences, behaviors, codes, expectations and assumptions. Yet until that moment I had taken for granted that what made me comfortable was what “should be,” what was expected and so shared by all humanity.
Like almost anyone else in such situations, I took it upon myself to judge the behavior of the women, that is, to categorize it and assign some value to it. In other words, I attempted to impose my own categories on what was different and strange, and in doing so to exercise some form of control over it—at least in my own mind.
In the current furore over burkinis on French beaches, this control is being exercised by the state, which is adamantly claiming a universal moral value regarding the degree of comfort or discomfort that some of its citizens experience when faced with competing views of just how much female flesh it is appropriate to exhibit on a public beach.
However, unless we are willing to live with the discomfort of what is different and challenging to our taken-for-granted assumptions about life, we are inviting a world of needless incivilities and lack of understanding, if not actively promoting continuing strife and conflict.
For over 15 years, mostly through the organization CEDAR – Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion I have been teaching, writing, listening and learning just how critical is the capacity to live with difference and with the discomfort that difference all too often entails.
If the idea of a “civil society” is to be realized in any manner in today’s world, it will rest, ultimately, on this ability to live with what is different even if that difference challenges some of our most deeply held assumptions about social life.